Television turned Technicolor. Dylan went electric. Now, the Kneehigh theater company’s Emma Rice (“Brief Encounter”) has taken over the leadership of Shakespeare’s Globe, and “cultural shift” doesn’t begin to cover it. Her opener is a raucous, slutty, modern-dress “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that makes the case for more mischief in the woods. Sumptuously designed, lit up like a rave and shot through with Indian infusions, it’s a show that leaves you smiling throughout. Original practice might be gone and the purists might well follow, but, even if Rice does try too hard, the same spirit remains at the Globe — crowd-pleasing to its very core.
This is Shakespeare as a free-for-all funfest. There are bursts of Bowie and Beyonce, neon signs and fireman’s poles, fingers up bums and old variety turns. Mortiz Junge’s costumes combine sneakers and ruffs, jerkins and fishnets to glorious effect — the bedraggled, 3am fallout of a fancy-dress party. It makes Rice’s forest a festival of its own: a place where order, gender and sexuality turn themselves inside out, where reason falls by the wayside and unchecked urges rule the day.
Doubling carries the dramaturgy. The old ego/id pairing of royalty extends to include Puck and Egeus. Katy Owen goes from an old golf course crone to the itchiest imp you ever saw: a horny, horned devil bursting out of her skin, touting a luminous orange water pistol as she rampages around fairyland. Where Theseus and Hippolyta are upstanding and orderly, Zubin Varla’s Oberon is sour as seven-day old cider, and cabaret artist Meow Meow makes a coo-coo-ca-choo Titania, all flamboyance and feathers. Sense and adult sensibility gives way to reckless impulse and anarchy. The words “Rock the ground” zing out in red neon overhead.
To make sense of the lovers losing their heads, “Midsummer Night’s Dream” needs a mad forest. It’s a place of youthful experiment and entanglement. Rice extends that with a single gender-swap: Helena becomes Helenus, and Ankhur Bahl plays him with finger-clicking camp and the saddest face this side of Sobsville. It works like a dream. The sexual U-turns are all the more unexpected; the violence of rejection, all the more viscious. Helenus isn’t just spurned by a closeted Demetrius (Ncuit Gatwa), he’s outright abused out of sexual shame.
It fits into a wider examination of sex, be it awkward, aggressive, bashful or sweet. Juddering fairies — Victoriana meets voodoo — dance crude tribal dances and actors can’t keep their hands off the groundlings.
Even so, Rice could trust Shakespeare more. Her textual tinkering isn’t an issue — who cares if we’re watching Athenian lords or Hoxtonite hipsters — it’s the fact that everything’s adorned with a visual gag that’s irritating. There’s more business here than in the City of London, and, while it brings the party vibe, it also slows, overloads and sometimes scuppers Shakespeare’s comedy. If Hermia and Lysander (Anjan Vasan and Edmund Derrington) are all over each other, his persistent attempts to talk his way into her bed make no sense. The actors’ delivery of the verse could be a lot better, and clarity is often sacrificed for horseplay.
Curiously, this relentless larkiness claims the play’s Rude Mechanicals as victims. Portrayed as a team of Globe volunteer ushers, led by Lucy Thackeray’s Rita Quince and Health and Safety Officer Nick Bottom (Ewan Wardrop), they’re very definitely amateurs. But rather than trust them to try their best and get things wrong, Rice piles on the gags — Rambo impressions and rigor mortis — and they just don’t ring true. Never mind: Rice is ringing the changes.